Updated: Feb 23
That means, “hello everyone” or “everyone, hello”! It’s finally time, we started learning the Japanese alphabet, or at least the Hiragana alphabet. What you see at the top is all Hiragana (or if you want to be more specific: ひらがな). As I said before, the language is pretty difficult, so we’ll be doing this slowly, because otherwise, we’d never understand why things are the way they are.
Also, don’t forget, when I say that a symbol sounds like “this” it’s only because it’s the Romanised equivalent, but the actual intonation is probably a little different. It’s best to listen to the way the symbol sounds, so you get a better idea of it.
Anyway, enough rambling, let’s get started!
Why Are We Starting With Hiragana?
The reason why we’re learning it first is because it’s the foundation of the Japanese language. You could say that the Chinese Kanji symbols are, but you can’t write a complete story, or article completely in Kanji. A similar thing can be said for the Katakana alphabet. While you probably could write a whole paragraph in Katakana, it’s just not feasible, and a lot of the time, native Japanese speakers, writers and linguists would probably be frustrated with you, if you only wrote in Katakana.
Hiragana ties that all together. If you wrote in Hiragana, you could tie in a Kanji and a Katakana word in the same sentence, because you’d use the Kanji for traditional words, while at the same time use the Katakana for an imported word (like “Merry Christmas”, or “American”). The Hiragana basically acts like the middleman in all of this. Think about it this way, in crochet, you have different stitches that make up a pattern, but patterns always go back to their “foundation stitch”, whether that be a single crochet, or a double, it doesn’t matter, it’s the foundation stitch, because it’s repeated throughout the pattern.
Ok, if that didn’t make any sense to you, then how about this…you’re drawing a bunch of grapes, including the stem and some leaves. The circles that make up the grapes are the Hiragana symbols of the Japanese alphabet, while the stem is the Chinese Kanji, you’d use to hold the grapes together. Now, if you need to import a Western word into your sentence or paragraph, you’d use Katakana letters, instead, and these are the leaves of your grapes. Does that make sense now?
Finally! Let's Start
First, we’ll start with basic pronunciation. Now, as I said before, these are rough translations of what Hiragana symbols sound like. Of course, there will be symbols and intonations that will be challenging, because you need to be exact in how you say certain words, and in what context these words are said. In these cases, you need to listen carefully to how these words actually sound like, so that you won’t be embarrassed by saying the wrong thing.
Ok, let’s begin. First off, ひらがな has a similar alphabet to English (that is phonetically). They have vowels and consonants just like we do, but instead of using symbols to represent them, they use symbols to represent syllables. Here, let me show you:
Do you see what I mean? Their symbols do not work like letters, they work like syllables. It’s not like how we can use “c” and “s” in words like “practice” or “practise” to change the meaning of the word. It takes an entire syllable to do that.
But...Double Vowels And Double Consonants...
Yes, it’s true. If you’re listening to a Japanese song, or watching an Anime in Japanese, and reading the subtitles, you can see that some words have double vowels and consonants, like “okaasan” or “konnichiwa”. In these cases, they use symbols that are stand-alones. What I mean is that certain consonants and certain vowels are used to double the last vowel or consonant in the last syllable.
Ok, let me show you. With “okaasan” the Hiragana looks like this:
This is the full Hiragana version.
In fact, normally “okaasan” looks like this:
As you can see, that “ka” and “a” symbol is shortened to a Kanji, to make it simpler. Anyway, back to the Hiragana.
As you can see, there are separate “ka” and “a” symbols in the word. When you say the word out loud, you don’t actually pause here, you’d blend them together, to elongate the vowel, so it sounds like “o-kaah-san” rather than “o-ka-ah-san”. Does that make sense?
Let’s try the double consonant, with “konnichiwa”. The word itself looks like this:
Ok, so this isn’t a perfect example, but it still does the same thing. When a word has an “ん” symbol in the middle of it, it’s most likely going to be a double “n” because it’s stressing the “n” in the word. So, that’s why instead of “konichiwa”, the word translates to “konnichiwa”, because you hold down that “n” a little longer than a regular “n”.
Here’s a different example, it’s actually a little different than the “konnichiwa” example. The word I’ll be using is the word “rokku”, which is a very different word to “roku”.
“Rokku” looks like this:
Again, this is the full Hiragana version, and as context, this means “rock” (literally).
“Roku” looks like this:
This word actually means “six”!
Can you see the difference in the Hiragana? “Rokku” has that extra “つ” in the middle while “roku” doesn’t. That extra “つ” acts like a silent letter, so that you would have to stress the consonant in the word, in this case the “k”. It’s a bit like the word “school”. You don’t say the “h” in the word, but it’s there to stress the “c”, so you would have to say “s-cool” rather than “shool”.
Find Your Own Words!
Ok, I’m going to leave it there for you guys for now, because that is quite a lot to get your head around. Believe me, I struggled a little bit when I started learning this part too. I couldn’t quite understand why they’d use syllabic symbols, when individual letters are much easier!
So, it’s homework time! I’d like you guys to look for words with double consonants and double vowels. I want you to pick a Japanese song (traditional or pop, is up to you), find the Romanised translation and pick out the words with double consonants and double vowels. Count how many there are and let me know!
Well, I’ll see you guys next time. We’ll probably be learning how to count…it’s pretty easy and actually you’ll be frustrated by it, because rather than numbers, we’re going to write them out in Hiragana!
I’ll see you guys then!